Called to Proclaim

1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Series on the Church as Called
Elizabeth M. Deibert

In two days it will be Valentine’s Day, a day set apart for expressing love. School children will share candies and cute cards with classmates. Lovers will exchange flowers and chocolates, and share dinner by candlelight. Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate romance, but the saints who are responsible for a Valentine’s Day are Christian martyrs, killed for their faith. They are not such much hopeless romantics, but deeply committed Christians, who understand sacrificial love. But as the Valentine’s Day legend goes, one of the young Christian martyrs healed the jailer’s daughter before going to his death. As he went, he handed her a love note saying “from your Valentine.”

The Greek word “martyr” means literally witness, but then it came to be known in English as one who died testifying to the Christian faith. The apostle Paul, like both the famous St Valentines of the early church, went to his death proclaiming Christ to all the world. There is no Biblical story of Paul’s death, but scholars agree he was martyred, probably beheaded Rome in the year 67 after an attempted missionary journey to Spain. For about thirty years, Paul traveled the Mediterranean world proclaiming the Gospel. And remember this is the apostle, who was born a blue-blood Jew among Jews, as to the law, a Pharisee. Paul had persecuted Christians before he became one. He did not meet Jesus, face-to-face, except in a mysterious encounter, after the resurrection and ascension. He did not know Jesus during his life on earth, but he had that dramatic, blinding experience on the way to Damascus that forever changed him into a Christ-follower, a Christ-proclaimer. It was probably twenty years later, he wrote the these words to the church in Corinth, explaining to them why he proclaims the Gospel as he does, why remuneration or no remuneration is not the issue, and why he changes his ways of proclaiming and his ways of living, depending on whom he is with. You see, for Paul, the issue is getting the good news out, no matter the cost. That’s why in chapter 8 he insists that while the eating of food sacrificed to idols is a non-issue for him, he will abstain for the sake of sharing the Gospel with those for whom it is an issue. He does not want to be a stumbling block to anyone. It’s not about rights and freedoms but about being responsible to the other person. Now that’s a Valentine’s lesson for all seeking to love. It’s not about what you think you rightly deserve and what you are free to do, but about being responsible and helpful to the other person. Listen for the word of God to us today:

1 Corinthians 9:16-27

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting,

for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!

17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will,

I am entrusted with a commission. 18 What then is my reward?

Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge,

so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all,

so that I might win more of them.

20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.

To those under the law I became as one under the law

(though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law.

21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law

(though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law)

so that I might win those outside the law.

22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.

I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.

23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

24 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete,

but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.

25 Athletes exercise self-control in all things;

they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.

26 So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air;

27 but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others

I myself should not be disqualified. (NRSV) 

Paul makes it clear that his relationship with Christ makes a total claim on his life.
He expresses his willingness to do whatever it takes to communicate this good news to others.19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

You might think Paul sounds like a politician, trying to be all things to all people, in order to win more votes, but his motive is much purer than that. He hopes to help them by means of good news, the gospel. This is the mission of the church – to live out this pattern of self-giving, in order to be a sign of God’s grace and love. For too many years, the church’s message has come from Christians interested in self-promotion, not Gospel proclamation. For too many years, the church’s message has been tainted by those who believed, like the Corinthians, they were free to do as they pleased, disrespecting the people with whom they were hoping to share good news. The imperialism of missionary work in which cultural differences were not appreciated did damage to the Gospel message. The hypocrisy of self-absorbed, sexually abusive priests and those who protected them did damage to the Gospel message. The shallowness of wealthy televangelists, using the message of the Gospel to satisfy their own selfish gains did damage. And the disunity of the church today continues to do damage.

For Paul, how the community orders its life and how members relate to each other are part and parcel of the proclamation of God’s reconciliation of the world. The church is a community that God calls into existence to incarnate, live out, and proclaim this new reality. But this requires that in Christ people find the radical freedom to identify fully with others, to become as they are, and thus to experience a genuine transformation of the self. This is what Paul means when he describes his own freedom to be a Jew among Jews, to be a Gentile among Gentiles, to be weak among the weak, in short, to be all things to all people….

And here’s the really counter-cultural message: that those on each side identify with those on the other side, in order to become as if they were the ones with whom they disagreed. This will not involve a change in conviction, at least not at first, but it means that they are to recognize what it would mean to act in behalf of those to whom they are opposed. What an intriguing strategy for people in conflict, the more so because it is grounded in Paul’s understanding of what God is doing in the world. What would happen if congregations were to attempt this in the pastoral life of the church? Perhaps it would help to set new terms for the conflict itself. Unimagined possibilities might appear, creating greater flexibility and new diversity in place of the increasing hardening of positions. People might learn new ways to speak and listen to one another, thus changing the character of the conflict. Indeed, such an experience might help American Christians in particular, given our culture of individualism, to rediscover Paul’s point that the
gospel envisions freedom as the right of individuals, not to do as they choose, but rather to relinquish their rights for the sake of others. True Christian freedom therefore expresses itself in service. (Bruce Rigdon, Feasting on the Word)

True Christian love expresses itself in service. So to proclaim Gospel becomes service, not in your face, insensitive arrogance. It is time to transform our understanding of what it means to proclaim. If you are for something, you are pro not con. To pro-claim Gospel is to be for claiming the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“The Gospel is never preached at people; it is preached for them.” (Vernon K Robbins, Feasting on the Word) It is self-giving, not self-promoting. Paul wants his efforts to match the content of the Gospel, so he uses this metaphor of the contest, which the Corinthians would understand well because they were so near the famous Isthmian Games, similar to the Olympics. His analogy is clear: just as winning athletes require both proper training and total commitment to compete, so too the Christian must discipline him or herself to live in a manner consistent with the goal of salvation.

“Christianity is a series of ideas to be held in the mind, analyzed in the classroom, or defended in the marketplace. Christianity is, above all else, a life to be lived.” (Bruce Rigdon) It is the disciplined Christian life that people notice. When you are living by the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – your proclamation of good news is real. When you care enough about the people different from you that you are willing to accommodate to their needs, to see from their perspective, then you are living the Gospel such that your proclamation has authenticity.

I love this quote, often attributed to St Francis of Assisi, reminding us that actions speak louder than words. But I am aware also that a focus entirely on deeds can lead us to be lazy about words. Sure, if your life does not witness, you have no witness. But words matter too. The man who told his wife that he loved her once thinks he never needs to say it again because she should know by the way he treats her that he still loves her – that guy has missed the value and opportunity of proclamation.

The last thing I want to say about proclaiming Gospel is that you yourself must be captured by it to proclaim it. So preach it to yourself first. Yes, there is the “scandal of particularity” that we proclaim something about Jesus Christ that no other faith claims. We claim that Jesus Christ does not just point us to God, but that he was God in the flesh, that he is the bread of life, the one in whom we live, the One who shows us not just that God loves but that God IS love. We are not claiming that there is no truth to be found in any other religion. We who claim Jesus Christ have much to learn from other faiths and cultures, but we are proclaiming the truth that in Jesus Christ, God is loving the whole world. Try to get over your fear that Christian faith is too narrow or exclusive, making you strive to be only mildly, only a little bit Christian. Don’t run this race half-heartedly. Have an open-minded, but confident faith Like Paul, be accommodating and respectful toward others, but keep affirming the truth you know about this person Jesus, God with us. Remember the One you serve was a servant, who washed his disciples’ feet, who served Judas his betrayer, who dared to keep proclaiming the truth, even though it took him to his death. In him, we live.